Burial grounds lie deathly silent, but their tombstones have a lot to say.
Volunteers with the Daughters of the American Revolution have trouped through 29 cemeteries in Beaufort and Jasper counties over the past 18 months, laying eyes and hands on 9,129 graves.
They record everything that is etched on every gravestone. What they find will be recorded for posterity in books at the national society's DAR Library in Washington, D.C., which claims to be one of the largest genealogical research centers in the United States.
The volunteers say it's almost like reading diaries, or "harvesting marble orchards."
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"He loved to shuck them oysters," says one stone.
"I've got my travelin' shoes," says another.
The stone of a dentist who died in 1901 says: "He filled his last cavity."
This is a project of Bluffton's Emily Geiger Chapter of the DAR, one of three chapters in Beaufort County. The work of the eight committee members will not include Hilton Head, which might be done by another chapter.
"In many cases, we are confirming previous databases," said committee chairwoman Dorothy Reed Pace of Sun City Hilton Head. "But we have to lay eyes on the headstones, and we double-check each other."
Volunteer Sunni Bond Winkler of Hilton Head Island said, "We hope that with what little we do, that at least some people 100 years from now will find out where their family member was buried, and know the dates. Many of these stones won't be here in 100 years, but the books will be."
It's not easy reading the holy grail on tombstones.
They've fought bugs, weeds and wintry weather.
Sometimes they cover the stones with shiny tin foil so they can read the engraved letters after running their fingers over each one.
They carry along brushes, and a few HODAR's (husbands of the DAR).
They have found cemeteries by reading obituaries, and by calling funeral homes and churches.
"We ask permission, we set a date and we go," Pace said.
The names and dates are the important thing on the stones, not the epitaphs. The great trifecta was finding a headstone with three generations recorded on it. Volunteers learned to check both sides of the stone.
But it's the epitaphs that stick in their minds.
Sometimes they're sad: "Mary, may God have mercy on your soul."
This one also makes you wonder: "She did the best she could."
A vault cover for a man and wife says about the husband: "There once was a prince who fell in love with a country girl." Her portion is much simpler: "Eager to learn. Devoted wife. Mother of two girls."
Some are humorous. "Sleeping Beauty" says one. Next to it is an epitaph with an arrow that says, "I'm with Sleeping Beauty."
One stone tells of a man who survived the Charge of the Light Brigade.
Another tells in the flowery speech of another era about a 20-year-old who died of a disease contracted in the Battle of Mexico.
"He was truth, affectionate and generous, and brave and his youth which was freely offered for his country had given promise of a noble manhood. He had felt the glow of patriotism and of glory but ere the first yearnings were satisfied he passed into a honored grave."
Sunni Winkler has been poring over genealogy for 60 years, after someone went out of his way to help her find a specific ancestor.
"I call it a passion," she said. "My husband calls it an obsession."
She goes by the old saying, "Genealogy without sources is mythology."
And a good, sturdy gravestone is a reliable source. For that reason, tombstones should include the month, day and year of birth and death. And it would help to include the date of marriage.
Taken as a whole, the tombstones are part encyclopedia and part novel.
The volunteers have found some etched with 18-wheelers, others with shrimp boats. One includes a poignant letter from the sister of the diseased.
They found one urging people to celebrate life, with black balloons and beer bottles evidence that the dying wish was fulfilled.
They found a tombstone that includes a photograph of the young man buried there. He was killed in a wreck. Then they noticed another photograph on the headstone. It was his 14-year-old dog, also killed in the wreck, and buried by its master.
"Cemeteries tell the story of the area, the history of the people," Winkler said. "Every place is unique, and every place is the same."
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Daughters of the American Revolution National Society